Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Intelligent Machines

Shape-Shifting Touch Screen Buttons Head to Market

An iPad accessory launching later this year will bring transparent morphing buttons to the device’s screen to aid touch-typing.

Making touch screens more tactile could change how they are used in both mobile devices and other applications.

As they peck out text on the featureless glass surface of their phone or tablet, some people still mourn the passing of the physical keyboard. Now technology is heading to mass production that can offer the best of both worlds: a featureless surface for watching video and buttons that rise out of it when you need to type.

Tactus developed keyboard
Finger guides: This prototype case for the iPad Mini features morphing, fluid-filled raised areas to make touch-typing easier.

That technology was developed by startup Tactus Technology, which uses tiny fluid-filled channels and elastic blisters to make buttons rise up from a device’s screen and then disappear without trace when they’re no longer needed (see “Demo: A Shape-Shifting Smartphone Touch Screen”).

Electronics manufacturing giant Wistron has now modified equipment at one of its factories in China to produce touch-screen panels with the shape-shifting technology inside. Wistron is one of the world’s largest electronics manufacturers; it’s made devices for brands including BlackBerry, Apple, and Acer. The company also recently became an investor in Tactus.

The first fruit of the tie-up will go on sale later this year in the form of a protective case with Tactus technology inside for Apple’s iPad Mini. The design includes a transparent screen protector that covers the front of the device. However, sliding a mechanical control on the side of the case raises up a transparent set of buttons or guides on the screen protector, over the touch keyboard, to make typing easier. Sliding the control back will cause those buttons to melt away, leaving a clear, smooth pane of glass.

“Users will still type on the screens as they do today, but with better performance, confidence, and satisfaction,” says Tactus CEO Craig Ciesla.

Tactus won’t reveal the exact design of the case launching this year, or of a similar one slated to launch next year. Nor will it say which brands are behind them. But it did let MIT Technology Review try out an internal prototype case for the iPad Mini with the same basic design.

Tactus developed keyboard
Tactile feedback: The finger guides allow people to sense when their fingers have missed their target, something that tests suggest helps to develop the muscle memory needed to type more accurately.

Sliding the control on the left pushed fluid into a set of guides that rose up between keys on the virtual keyboard. That they were ever there is discernable only by a close examination of the screen protector in the right light. But the panel feels noticeably less smooth to a finger swiping the surface.

The guides provide physical feedback when the fingers don’t directly hit a key, something that’s lacking on a typical touch screen. In a few minutes of testing, it seemed to help my fingers learn how to hit their targets better. Tactus says it has been testing different-shaped guides but won’t say which the first products will use.

The relationship with Wistron could lead morphing buttons to appear in tablets and other devices. Tactus has demonstrated both a prototype seven-inch tablet with its technology fully integrated into its display and an off-the-shelf tablet modified to include the technology. When the buttons are built into a device in that way, their movements are driven by a small electric pump. On the demonstration prototypes, the buttons automatically pop up when the keyboard appears.

“We are only at the beginning of what we expect to be a multiyear partnership, where the Tactus solution will be brought to multiple markets, starting with mobile computing,” says Ciesla. He says the two companies have begun working on the design of products and prototypes for carriers, electronics brands, and retailers. One project is a notebook-style device that has a second, morphing screen where the keyboard would usually be.

Tech Obsessive?
Become an Insider to get the story behind the story — and before anyone else.

Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Intelligent Machines

Artificial intelligence and robots are transforming how we work and live.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Bimonthly print magazine (6 issues per year)

    Bimonthly digital/PDF edition

    Access to the magazine PDF archive—thousands of articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips

    Special interest publications

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Special discounts to select partner offerings

    Ad-free web experience

/
You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.